This month, the critics of the Fourth Wall invite you on a stroll through what Ray Bradbury calls “The October Country.” With the movie industry devoting nearly full attention to the spooky side of the market, we will happily follow suit.
Today we take a different look at the master horror directors. Each of these moviemakers has made an iconic footprint on the history of scary cinema, whether with a well-worn franchise or in a single terrifying stroke. In many cases, the great success of such a film overshadows a director’s lesser works. Some are forgotten with good reason, but others are worth reviving now and again. Join William Bibbiani, Julia Rhodes, and myself (Dan Fields) as we discuss the neglected offspring of the great names in horror.
The Funhouse (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1981)
Tobe Hooper, despite a mottled track record, has scored some major hits in the horror market. He is the man who gave us the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Halloween favorite Poltergeist, and a very enjoyable TV adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. James Mason and David Soul, together at last!
Two of Hooper’s other films really stand out. The first is Eaten Alive, which is like a wackier and sleazier spin on Chain Saw, and was a tempting entry for this list. In all its Neville-Brand, scythe-swingin’, alligator-chompin’ glory, it is definitely worth your time, but there is just something special about another of Hooper’s neglected babies, The Funhouse.
Speaking of Ray Bradbury, here’s the 1980s drive-in response to the sophisticated fantasy of Something Wicked This Way Comes – a mysterious carnival that kids wander into, never to return. For those with a little healthy fear of circuses and funhouses, this movie will tickle your phobia bone quite expertly. The opening titles, consisting simply of clockwork clowns and cackling puppets, is for me just about as creepy as the whole rest of the film.
The setup is standard-issue slasher material. Teenagers sneak into a traveling carnival to see what kind of trouble they can cause after hours. They begin badly by poking fun at the sideshow, and even worse, making fun of the gypsy fortune teller. Have these kids ever read a book, or even seen a movie?
The making or breaking of a slasher film is in a unique and engaging atmosphere. Even for a ratty two-bit carnival, this traveling show is so creepy and sordid-looking that only bored-stiff small town kids would get anywhere near it. Little do they know that guarding the fair’s funhouse darkride is a hulking, nasty creature – the carnival barker’s hideously deformed son.
There is not a great deal else to say about a film like The Funhouse. It plays out predictably, but it does a darned scary job of it. The seedy environment, the weird music, and the various characters are all convincing and nicely rendered, making this a better than average entry in a genre which, if not properly approached, embodies the very worst qualities of moviemaking. Not so in The Funhouse.
The ‘Burbs (dir. Joe Dante, 1989)
Joe Dante, who gave the world The Howling, Gremlins and more, has always approached his work with a sly and mischievous sense of humor. Rarely, though, has he made a film as wacky as The ‘Burbs. The movie manages to spoof numerous horror and suspense classics, from Rear Window to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and be a little bit of a horror film in its own right.
Ray (Tom Hanks) lives on a quiet suburban street, where everyone is stranger than they seem. But when the new neighbors, the only ones who mind their own business, begin prowling around the yard at night, Ray and his fellow residents put their differences aside in order to snoop. Ray has a bad feeling about all of this, and is plagued by nightmares of Satanic ghouls living right next door. Why Hanks can be so well-remembered for Big and A League Of Their Own – rightfully so, I grant you – and not for this film is a crime and a shame. His comical party of allies, from perennial wiseass Corey Feldman to bugged-out veteran Bruce Dern, may pose as big a threat to the safety of the neighborhood as their possibly homicidal neighbors.
The ‘Burbs is zany, hilarious, dark and bizarre all at once. Behind the outrageous and destructive antics of Ray and his bunch is a clever satire of life in clean-cut middle America. Nobody likes a busybody, as Ray’s sensible wife (a delightful Carrie Fisher) points out more than once, but in stories like this, keeping to yourself is the worst thing you can do, even if the alternative makes you look like a crank and a weirdo yourself. In the quest to expose the crimes of one’s freaky neighbors, persistence in the face of all logic is the key, not merely to success but to a very funny movie.
Monkey Shines: An Experiment In Fear (dir. George A. Romero, 1988)
Weird, weird, weird! But what should we expect from George A. Romero, the man who brought us the titanic Living Dead saga, and for that matter introduced the modern zombie to the world? His non-zombie projects are fairly numerous, and vary in success and popularity. One of the most unusual is Monkey Shines, concerning the troubling bond between a man and his monkey.
Alan has lost the use of his limbs in an accident. Depressed by the uprooting of his life, he receives hope for a better future in the form of a monkey named Ella. The creature has been scientifically altered, rendering her super-intelligent and able to help Alan cope nicely with his everyday needs. They bond instantly, though Ella’s behavior soon suggests that she is more than just smart. They seem to connect on a telepathic level, perhaps due to the monkey’s experimentally enhanced brain.
Ultimately, Ella develops a homicidal hatred for the humans in Alan’s life, first destroying his enemies out of loyalty, then threatening his friends and loved ones out of jealousy. When Alan realizes the unhealthy level of their relationship, he makes every effort to curb the monkey’s gruesome spree. But Ella won’t have that. The story begins taking an uncanny turn into Misery territory, and resolves itself only slightly more cheerfully.
Despite the rather ludicrous premise of the movie, it manages to weave a poignant, even touching story amid all the nasty mischief. In addition to Misery, it has shades of Frankenstein, with a creature that is intelligent enough to be human and longs for genuine human connection, and reacts violently when frustrated. All in all an interesting and entertaining piece of oddball horror from a gentleman who knows his trade.
Bug (dir. William Friedkin, 2007)
In 1973, William Friedkin turned the horror world on its head with The Exorcist. Rarely can one film make its director a legend for life, but aside from this, and two successful cop films – The French Connection and To Live And Die In L.A. – Friedkin has spent the last three decades in search of another triumph. From the unsung but passable Sorcerer to the notorious sleaze-flop Jade, Friedkin’s career proves that he is not a legendary filmmaker. He just happens to have made a legendary film or two.
Suddenly, Friedkin is turning heads (and stomachs) once again with his newest offering, Bug, adapted from a play by Tracy Letts. Aside from a few framing bits, the whole film has one location – a rundown motel room which transforms and decays along with the psychological state of its owner, an unhappy waitress named Agnes (Ashley Judd). Saddled with fear, guilt, confusion and loneliness over her ill-fated marriage and motherhood, she is just vulnerable enough to welcome an eccentric drifter into her life. Peter (Michael Shannon) is quiet, sensitive, and weird, but he and Agnes quickly forge a romance in the seclusion of the room neither of them cares to leave. Meanwhile, her dangerous and abusive ex Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.) lurks nearby, hoping to re-stake his claim on Agnes and bring her comfortably back under his thumb.
Agnes does not respond in the typical tv-drama fashion to Jerry’s menacing intrusion. She is too caught up in Peter’s growing web of paranoia. Something has happened to this young man. He tells wild stories of conspiracies, military experiments, and bugs. Not the kind that listen. The kind that crawl.
Peter taps the emotional vulnerability that has brought Agnes to a halt in life, and effectively mesmerizes her into sharing his terror and delusion. Because she needs him, she is willing to believe him. Because she is willing to believe him, he needs her. As the outside world tries to intrude and help Agnes escape this perilous relationship, Agnes and Peter work at shutting out everything but the two of them. Everyone from outside is a potential threat now.
Things just keep going and going, getting scarier and nastier as Peter and Agnes kiss reality goodbye. The film’s jolting climax comes in the form of a shambling, barely coherent monologue by Ashley Judd, relinquishing her grip for good, and I think it ought to win some kind of special award. Bug is not for everyone, and may not be destined for enduring fame. However, for the collector of oddities and assorted terrors, it is a title to note.
The Gift (dir. Sam Raimi, 2000)
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series made both the director and his muse Bruce Campbell famous. The Spider-Man franchise made Raimi a household name. After Evil Dead and before Spider-Man, Raimi made a little thriller that doesn’t share his typical frenetic style or jovial tone. It may be unlike other Raimi films, but as far as horror’s stepchildren go, The Gift is one of my favorites. I’ve written about The Gift before in the context of movies that make me feel like summer—and it’s partly responsible for my fascination with Georgia and Louisiana swamps.
The movie isn’t horror—or at least, it’s not horror in the vein of “We’ll swallow your soul!” and the Necronomicon. It’s a supernatural drama-thriller allegedly based on Raimi’s mother’s experiences when he was a young boy. Cate Blanchett, who under normal circumstances exudes class and poise unlike many other actors, dresses down as poor single mother Annie Wilson. Annie inherited a psychic “gift” from her Granny and uses donations from townspeople she “reads” to supplement her family’s meager income after her husband’s death in an explosion. When Annie suggests a battered wife (Hilary Swank) leave her husband, she pisses off the wrong redneck (Keanu Reeves, less “I know kung fu” than “I’m still not quite believable as a philandering hick but I’m better than usual”). Annie ends up drawn into a dangerous web of mystery surrounding a beautiful young girl’s (Katie Holmes) death.
The movie’s spooky Deep South has an aura of exoticism. The Gift takes its audience into the swamps and surrounds with bulging bald cypress trees and eerily swaying Spanish moss. Danny Elfman’s score thrums with emotive fiddles, cellos, and the occasional high-pitched shriek of Bernard Hermann-esque violins. Raimi’s horror background is obvious in the imagery: Katie Holmes’s half-naked corpse stands in a darkened hallway, her blackened eyes begging for retribution; Hilary Swank appears suddenly behind an open car trunk. Speaking of cars, if you’ve seen the Evil Dead movies, you’ll recognize Annie’s: it’s the Delta 88 Oldsmobile Ash drives. Likewise, Raimi cast Rosemary Harris (who plays Peter Parker’s Aunt May) as Annie’s Granny, and the ubiquitous J.K. Simmons (Peter’s editor J. Jonah Jameson) as Sherriff Pearl Johnson. Raimi and Elfman allegedly had a falling-out before Spider-Man 3, but aside from that, Raimi’s stable of actors and crew returns to work with him again and again, which makes me believe he’s probably kind of an awesome guy. In Raimi’s world, horror and humor go hand in hand, and while The Gift is more like straight drama than his other films, it’s still a well made movie with a fantastic setting.
The People Under the Stairs (dir. Wes Craven, 1991)
Wes Craven is responsible for the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which is arguably the most famous slasher series in the last few decades. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers have all been reincarnated for the umpteenth time in theaters in the last few years—but none can live up to the originals. Craven, who was an undeserved reputation as a hack due to some poor choices, was brought up in an austere religious family and sought out horror movies as a catharsis. The man knows of what he speaks, and he’s made some really frightening flicks. People fainted and rushed out of the theater during Last House on the Left. 1997’s Scream provided a sorely needed reboot of the slasher with gleeful self-awareness. On the special features for The Hills Have Eyes, Craven exposed himself as a soft-spoken intellectual with a morbid fascination. (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, and Last House on the Left have all been remade since 2006, and Scream 4 is set to hit theaters in 2011—the man’s movies are legend.)
Craven’s movies usually (sometimes clumsily) touch on sensitive cultural subjects—rape, deformity, incest, torture…you know, the usual horror fare. However, Craven is a film scholar/nerd himself and his movies handle these matters differently from your average Hostel or Wrong Turn. In 1991, Craven made a play on the old trope that says black people die first in horror films (which Kevin Williamson also wrote about in Craven’s Scream 2). The People Under the Stairs is a racially-motivated horror movie about a rich, white “couple” (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) who lord their wealth over the city’s poor African Americans. In an attempt to rob them, Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Poindexter “Fool” Williams (one of my preteen crushes, The Sandlot’s Brandon Quinton Adams) make a sinister discovery: the “couple” keep a collection of cannibalistic, mutilated humans in their basement and imprison a cute young “daughter” in the attic (“My So-Called Life”’s A.J. Langer). Fool takes it upon himself to avenge the persecuted—but alas, the poor black characters, held prisoner by the brother and sister who own their property, are nearly as powerless as the deformed, albino creatures trapped under the stairs.
Craven has a long-standing fascination with family dynamics–perhaps as a result of his own odd upbringing? Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes both deal with white, middle-class families and their disturbing capability for violence. The “family” in question in The People Under the Stairs is another illustration of his desire to subvert the American family ideals. The unit seems the very picture of Americana–meat-and-potatoes, patterned dresses, warm baths, nice old house…until you get inside. Yes, it’s heavy-handed, and no, it isn’t a good movie…but it’s a guilty pleasure. The movie subverts the ideal American 2.3 children, collie and Caddy family, and it certainly subverts the notion that black people aren’t in horror movies, or that the “token black guy” always bites it first. Craven’s better-known films have paved the way for a lot of modern horror, and he’s indisputably one of horror’s maestros. This little (pleasurable) misstep is okay with us horror nerds.
“Masters of Horror: Jenifer” (dir. Dario Argento, 2005)
One of my favorite aspects of the horror genre is its ability to subvert social and political constructs, to apply fantastic qualities to the horrific events of our everyday lives, thus making them easier to deal with. When director Mick Garris put together the “Masters of Horror” series for Showtime, horror fans rejoiced! Although the mini-movies were rarely incredible due to budgeting and time constraints, the whole of “Masters of Horror” produced some seriously strange and awesomely fun little movies. Many of the “Masters of Horror” directors got political: Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” is a fun little 50s-sci-fi twist on sexuality and the Other. John Carpenter’s “Pro-Life” manages to insert messages about abortion and Christianity into a film about the devil with Ron Perlman. Likewise, Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” is a zombie movie about voting and war. Japanese director Takashi Miike’s episode “Imprint” is a film about deformity and the flawed mother. It was banned from airing on TV, even Showtime—and as much as I love it, it actually makes me feel nauseous.
Dario Argento is famous for giallo films, the ultimate atmospheric Italian horror. His 1977 classic Suspiria is one of my favorite movies, as much for its gorgeous sets and over-the-top plot as its gratuitous kills and incredible soundtrack by The Goblins. Argento’s first “Masters of Horror” episode, titled “Jenifer,” was written by and stars “Wings” actor Steven Weber. Downtrodden cop Frank Spivey (Weber) witnesses the attempted murder of a young woman, and after he saves her, he finds himself in the middle of a twisted sex-and-death game.
The writing and acting are not amazing, but the subject matter and Greg Nicotero’s fantastic makeup effects make this little quickie worth watching. The young woman, Jenifer, is the very definition of The Monstrous-Feminine. When we think of “feminine beauty,” we as a society tend to think about curves, large eyes, a plump mouth, lustrous hair, and submissive posturing. Jenifer’s (Carrie Fleming) body is gorgeous. She’s voluptuous in all the right places, muscular in all the stereotypically attractive ways. Her face, though…well, those traits I just mentioned? They’re here, but exaggerated to such an extent that they’re completely revolting. Sure, she has a plump, red mouth distended into a permanent smile. She also has sharp picket-fence teeth, all the better for eating cat guts. She certainly has huge, wet, anime eyes—but they’re the eyes of a freak. She’s equipped with womanly hips and breasts, a gorgeous sheath of curly blond hair, and long (inexplicably well-groomed) fingernails. She seems to need protection and enjoys rough sex. She’s also a monster.
Horror films are notorious for their misogyny, and “Jenifer” is no different. Jenifer is the epitome of evil. She uses sex to get what she wants, she uses men to get what she needs, and she rips apart families, animals, and people with equal glee. The fact that it’s so in-your-face is what makes “Jenifer” a twisted, fun little flick. Weber, Argento, and Nicotero hit a happy medium to make a movie that both utilizes misogynistic horror tropes and satirizes them. Perfecto!
From Beyond (dir. Stuart Gordon, 1986)
Stuart Gordon began his film career with Re-Animator, an exceptional character-based horror comedy that also shot Jeffrey Combs to cult stardom and effectively brought the writings of H.P. Lovecraft into the pop culture foreground for arguably the first time. Re-Animator was a very clever movie, funny and somewhat frightening, bolstered by a top-notch script and an unusually talented cast, but it’s funny that it was the first big hit based on a Lovecraft story. As far as Lovecraft’s work goes, Herbert West: Re-Animator is generally considered a minor work, and an amusing piece of pulp fluff as well. But it does make sense when you think about it: Lovecraft specialized in conceptual horror, which doesn’t translate well to being filmed. (Go ahead. Try to make a movie of The Colour Out of Space. I dare you.) So for the most part it’s his relatively straightforward, and generally less-nuanced works that translate best to the silver screen.
Stuart Gordon learned this lesson well and for his follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Re-Animator he directed From Beyond, based on another minor work from Mr. Lovecraft, about a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast who has developed a machine that stimulates the human pineal gland, allowing the subjects to perceive strange beings from another dimension. The catch is that these strange beings can see you too, and don’t like you very much. Gordon’s screenplay required a bit more adaptation than Re-Animator, which was unusually plot-heavy for a Lovecraft story. Tillinghast went from the story’s villain to its unlikely protagonist, played by Jeffrey Combs as a somewhat hapless assistant of sorts who is sent to the loony bin after the evil Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) completed his experiments in extra-dimensional perception. Soon his crazy-hot psychologist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Re-Animator’s Barbara Crampton) brings him back to the scene of the crime to find out what really happened, and of course before long they’re all fighting off monsters from another plane of existence.
From Beyond isn’t as refined as Gordon’s other Lovecraft adaptations (Dagon is also quite good). The horror master never wrote many female characters to speak of and as a result Barbara Crampton has a rather thankless role, particularly when she’s forced to put on a fetish outfit and prance around naughtily for no good reason (not that I’m complaining too much). The plot is also rather thin all around, but none of that matters much once the impressive creature effects like a giant worm in the basement or Dr. Pretorius’s particularly creative transformations get going. From Beyond finally received a proper DVD release a year or two ago after over two decades of relative obscurity, and horror fans looking for something old/new will find it a highly entertaining though rather bizarre exploration into scientific grotesquery, and still one of the better Lovecraft adaptations to hit the screen.
The Frighteners (dir. Peter Jackson, 1996)
I’ve never been entirely sure who The Frighteners was made for. Well… Peter Jackson, obviously. But the horror maestro behind Bad Taste and Dead Alive (“I kick ass for the Lord!”) made his first foray into mainstream Hollywood entertainment with this lively but tonally scattershot horror-comedy that starred Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a modern day Ghostbuster. All of his jobs are elaborate hoaxes, but the irony is that Frank really can see ghosts, and most of them are pretty cool guys who are willing to put on a spook show to help Frank out. It’s a pretty cute premise for a horror-comedy, but true to form, Peter Jackson throws in everything but the kitchen sink, from violent serial killers to adorable babies. The result is a movie with a sizable fan base but which has never achieved proper cult status. In retrospect, it’s nothing short of amazing that the director of this movie would be given creative control over the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, but hey… obviously it all worked out for the best.
The Frighteners, which is now finally available in a director’s cut that fleshes out the story a bit, has goofy ghosts stuck in 70’s disco attire. It has an old codger ghost who falls in lust with a mummy at a museum. It has Michael J. Fox. All of these things imply a wacky comedy, but the threats Jackson introduces are of a decidedly creepier variety: A horrifying demon that can kill the dead. A spectral serial killer. An FBI agent whose body is a “road map of pain” after going undercover with unspeakable demonic cults. Frank Bannister having to kill himself in order to solve the film’s mysteries… These are frightening, monstrous things and Jackson clearly thinks they’re both really cool and totally appropriate for audiences everywhere. As a result, it’s easy to watch The Frighteners and not know what to think, and you’d be forgiven for not loving it as much as I do. But it’s a stylish and thrilling dark comedy with horror elements that are actually horrifying, which some of us actually appreciate. It would be nice if darker mainstream cinema like this could find a larger fan base, but until then it’s important to appreciate what little we have.
“Masters of Horror: Deer Woman” (dir. John Landis, 2005)
“Masters of Horror” never quite lived up to its promises. Sure, it gave horror maestros across the world the freedom to make any movie they wanted as long as they made it on the cheap and kept the running time to under an hour, but for some reason most of the episodes felt like just another installment in each director’s respective oeuvres, and not always a particularly good one either. But given the talent involved there was bound to be a highlight or two, and while most people point to “Cigarette Burns” as the series’ best episode my own personal pick will always be the hilarious but dramatically satisfying “Deer Woman” from John Landis (director of An American Werewolf in London), co-written by his son Max.
Brian Benben of HBO’s “Dream On” plays Dwight Faraday, a cop who specializes in animal attacks. And no, he doesn’t like his job. One day he’s faced with a very unusual case: a trucker who was trampled to death inside the back of his cab. There’s no plausible explanation for the crime – as Dwight discovers in a hilarious sequence in which he visualizes one absurd scenario after another, eventually deciding that each of them is, to one degree or another, ridonkulous – so our hero is forced to think outside the box. Maybe the killer was a hot woman with deer legs?
Landis directs “Deer Woman” with his usual aplomb: the movie/episode has a bemused tone that manages to take the plot seriously without forgetting how ludicrous the concept is. There’s a great bit where Dwight and his partner find a local Native American to explain the Deer Woman legend to them, but the bit doesn’t play like the usual half-man exposition-laden melodrama. They find the guy at a local casino, and he doesn’t believe a single word of his own story. He’s actually shocked that anyone would. When Dwight asks him what the Deer Woman’s motivation is, he responds “Why does everything have to have a ‘why’ with you people? You know, it’s a woman with deer legs… Motive really isn’t an issue here.” But despite the levity “Deer Woman” impresses with an unlikely protagonist, an even unlikelier villain, and a story that overcomes its utter ridiculousness. It’s Landis’s best work in many, many years.